It is a breezy afternoon in early December. The late fall sunlight casts a soft, coppery glow on the back lawn of The Beach Club as the guests arrive in twos, striding down the grassy slope for a welcome cocktail. Jeremy and Alison Storey of Storey Farms on Johns Island arrive first. Then Cindy and Taylor Tarvin of Tarvin Seafood and Mark and Kerry Marhefka of Abundant Seafood. Kiawah Island Real Estate agent Kelly Henry and her husband, Joe, join the group, and they all chat amiably in the afternoon sun.
This night has been a long time coming. It is a celebration of a vision realized, a thank you from the B-Liner’s Chef Mike Lata to the farmers and purveyors that underpin his storied Lowcountry restaurants. And it is a chance for these hardworking fishermen, shrimpers, and farmers to enjoy the fruits of their labor and to connect with their contemporaries.
The B-Liner opened its doors in March of 2018 after a complete reimagining and extensive two-year renovation. But it was several years before that in the making. Lata and the Kiawah Partners really wanted to do something different with The Beach Club restaurant, to make a statement about food that is deeply connected to the Lowcountry. Lata came to the project with a bit of trepidation. “I thought, How difficult is this going to be? Will compromise water down the concept?” Because it was a bold choice. Traditional club offerings are staid, solid. The emphasis might be on quality, but consistency is often prioritized above all. Lata’s concept for the B-Liner was high maintenance and full of variables, a menu that changes daily. The whole endeavor felt like a risk. Yet the partners gave Lata full reign.
“Flash-forward two years and we’ve done it,” says Lata. “There it is, without compromise. There’s a tremendous amount of pride in that achievement. Then to invite [the purveyors] for the first time to get the experience, to cook for them with the team—putting this exclamation point on the project is really fun for me.”
Before dinner, the guests sit in the sunshine or play bocce ball. Several couples are meeting for the first time, yet there is an easy amity among the group. “I think farmers and fishermen always have a lot in common as far as the craziness of our lives and the risky entrepreneurial endeavors that we’ve all taken on,” says Kerry Marhefka of Abundant Seafood. “We always feel this sort of kindred spirit when we’re amongst other purveyors.” Someone suggests a beach walk and the group strolls down the boardwalk to the sand. There is a stiff breeze and whitecaps tuft the shallow waters of the Atlantic, and everyone turns west, into the sun.
Lata gives a lot of credit to B-Liner executive chef Geoffroy Deconinck. He has worked in some of the best restaurants in the country and, from the start, shared Lata’s vision for the restaurant, his commitment to quality, to local ingredients. “This relationship that we have with the purveyors is really energizing and interesting,” says Deconinck. “We have to adapt because we never know what fish is coming tomorrow.” Deconinck commutes from Daniel Island and often goes to the Marhefka’s and the Tarvin’s dock himself to choose fish and pick up shrimp. His dishes lean toward simplicity, letting the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. “We take extreme care in the produce we purchase,” he says. “We set the tone for quality, local seafood and you can see it on the plate.”
Deconinck is playing to a sophisticated audience. The diners at the B-Liner are lockstep with the concept, he says. “These are international travelers. They have dined in excellent restaurants.” And it’s true. Club members are perhaps Lata and Deconinck’s most discerning audience. The B-Liner has been met with rave reviews. “I think there is a growing conscience with savvy food folks,” says Lata. “[The B-Liner] is very in step with what is important to a lot of people now. And Jacob Henley, the general manager, has set the tone for people to receive the food. That makes a big difference. He and Geoffroy together are the best one-two punch you could ask for.”
The sun is sinking toward the horizon as the guests make their way back to the grass. Lata, Deconinck, and their team cross the lawn to the table. They’ve brought roasted potatoes with Fushimi peppers, fall ratatouille, and spaghetti squash casserole. There is a salad of mizuna and mustard greens and a seafood tower to end all seafood towers. But the main event is the grilled B-Liner with chermoula. The namesake fish is straight from Marhefka’s dock, and the guests ooh and aah as Lata sets it on the table.
Over dinner, the host and his guests talk shop—from Charleston’s current culinary climate to local policy on lowcountry fisheries. This is a continuation of a longstanding discussion. How to mobilize meaningful support for the Lowcountry’s farmers, shrimpers, and fishermen? Lata’s restaurants and his considerable influence is incredibly important to people like the Marhefkas, Storeys, and Tarvins. “True leaders in the industry, like Mike and plenty of others, are using real ingredients in the state that they’re meant to be in,” says Tarvin. “And I hope that is lasting. It’s a really important piece of the puzzle for the survival of farmers and fisheries.”
Benign neglect of the local government is often a disappointment to local purveyors. “They look at the number of fishermen, which is not very many,” says Tarvin. “But what they don’t look at is the ripple effect that the fisheries have on the local community, the restaurants, and tourism.” Without reasonable support, local fisheries struggle to develop, to draw a younger workforce. For the Tarvins, Lata is not just a steady customer, but a consistent source of a more fundamental support, a mouthpiece that can rally the food and beverage community around these purveyors. “When we print Abundant Seafood and Tarvin Shrimp on the menu, we’re educating people,” says Lata. “Diners connect the dots and actually go to the dock. It can resonate with them.”
For the Marhefkas, Lata has been absolutely instrumental in their success. “It’s not just talk. He truly supports our business in every way, shape, and form,” says Kerry Marhefka. Though the Marhefkas are very active in federal fishery management, Lata’s star power affords them access they wouldn’t get on their own. As a team, they have even gone to Washington, D.C., appealing to congressional leaders on issues like fishery regulation and catch shares. The survival of the Lowcountry’s fisheries and farms depends on the passion and dedication of people like this.
But it all starts with a kitchen that prioritizes local products and a sense of place. Tonight, the whole fish presentation of the B-Liner steals the show. “We get super jazzed at any whole fish presentation,” says Marhefka. “Different cuts of fish have different flavor and texture, so you get the whole experience.” The guests toast to Lata and to each other, and laughter punctuates the evening air.